by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)
“Please, just a little more time; let my insides be my outsides” Rebecca Ryskalczyk sings early on in her band Bethlehem Steel’s first full-length LP, and while she is speaking about her own grotesquely human need, this might as well be the mission statement for bedroom-pop/rock’s omnipresent posse of wallflowers and introverts, both retroactively and into posterity. The offspring of a ubiquitous effort to communicate a type of pathos so private and inaccessible that at times it feels as difficult as producing your innards for an audience, this genre often feels like an invitation into the bedroom of a childhood friend. While this breed of indie-rock has had its sore thumbs in the past, within the last five years, as a subculture, it has reached levels of saturation nearly antithetical to the nature of the music itself. Regardless of its level of popularity, the music has stayed inarguably insular and peppered with lyrics at times damnably twee, while also packing enough of a pensive-punch to not entirely forsake gravitas. Overall, the goal seems to be a type of nostalgic transparency; concurrently mining the past for comfort and truth in an effort to understand the present. And while some acts, especially lately, have forsaken some of the more diary-like entry pathos of say a Frankie Cosmos for the slightly evil and pummeling psych-poetry of a Melkbelly, a degree of vulnerability remains in the performances, a blood letting of sorts, an attempt to make the inner life of the artist more tactile.
This lyric along with the notion of revealing inner life is at the forefront of Party Naked Forever, a promising and progressive look at the fundamental discomfort of being a young American woman in 2017. Unlike rock albums of yore, there is the distinct feeling that lead singer and lyricist Rebecca Ryskalczyk is aiming to open up the insular world of rock from that of navel-gazing revelations to more timely social issues that are impossible to avoid in the current socio-cultural climate. These songs, rather than aim to join the caravansary of arguably redundant confessionals by similarly-minded artists, serve to buck the complacency monopolizing the scene and give the listener something at times brash and obvious, but no less impactful and forward-thinking.
Their namesake alone is the first hint to the uninitiated that his band has bigger ideas on its mind. Named for the pioneering steel manufacturer based in Bethlehem, PA, once America’s second-largest steel producer, both aiding the war effort in World War II as well as supplying steel to the original construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately, and at the expense of many many jobs, in the latter half of the 20th century, the company found itself bankrupt. Amongst a multitude of reasons for their failure was their inability to adapt to a changing industry and economy, an undying devotion to keep the old ways alive. Were it not for the fact that this entire recording is haunted by the idea of failure on a personal, social, and national level this information would be for naught. However, the name of the band, especially in tandem with the content of this LP, reads like a warning to our nation: if we can’t get our act together, perhaps our way of life will be just as moribund as the steel industry ultimately found itself.
This notion of failure is addressed early on in songs like “Alt Shells” which finds the protagonist unable to heave off the unnamed weight that burdens her as Ryskalczyk howls “I can barely lift my head, I’m holding onto something.” Similarly, the triptych of “Florida 2,” “Deep Back,” and “Finger It Out” all repeat similar sentiments regarding some deep defeat or personal failure which, despite attempts to ameliorate, ultimately render her inert and indifferent. In fact, not only does this record seem concerned with personal failure, but also the failure of others. No one is chucking stones from their glass house though. On Party Naked Forever, the group relates an empathic streak in the lyrics, concerned not only for the state of the country or the state of their own minds, but also that of others. “Florida 2” includes a sterling example of this compassion when Ryskalczyk pleads “Will my friends still be afraid because of their outsides?” This fixation on the dichotomy of innards and outward appearances plagues the singer as she worries about a world in which not only she, but also the ones she loves cannot live their lives openly and freely.
Though some may see these thematic touchstones as the stock & trade of this particular brand of indie-rock, you might be right were it not for the way Ryskalczyk extrapolates the personal into the political. “Alt Shells” demonstrates both the toll of personal and political strife as well as the feeling of defeat upon waking up each morning, afraid to check the news or your twitter feed. It’s a fear that’s all too common these days, with mass shootings, the looming threat of war, and the shameful sexual politics which are only now coming to head in America. “Deep Back” addresses a similar discontent, but one born of the naivety of youth: “There are promises I’ve made in my youth/I feel like a bad child.” Much like this country is seeing now, the promises of our youth (e.g. the Second Amendment, the American Dream) have come to yield some inarguable ugliness, both personally and politically, and Ryskalczyk points out how she, much like everyone else, fell for the false promises of hope that we are fed throughout childhood. Now, after a lifetime of believing the mythology and magic of the American Dream, she simply feels like a “bad child” for having devoted herself so wholeheartedly.
All of this might easily be chalked up to a case of over-analysis were it not for the album’s centerpiece, “Untitled Entitlement,” which retroactively focuses the themes of the entire record and brings the album to a halt with the fiercely reserved performance of Ryskalczyk and the overt politics contained therein. Sonically, this track differentiates itself with its overt simplicity and vocals which are (finally) pushed to the very forefront of the track. None of this is a mistake, whereas other tracks on the record let the vocals and lyrics take a backseat to the chime and gnaw of the guitars, here the lyrics couldn’t be clearer. Ryskalczyk shows a shame at the way her peers have turned a blind eye to the increasingly dire socio political state: “I don’t wanna hear you say ‘this is not mine; how do I try?’” Here she lambasts the ubiquitous feelings of indifference plaguing the population of youth who feel alienated by American culture and overwhelmed by the small amount of power they wield. It isn’t before long that Ryskalczyk comes through with the most simply stated, heartbreaking, and captivating moment of the record, which is devastating in and of itself, but takes on a far more rancorous air due in no small part to the recent onslaught of sexual abuse claims within Hollywood in the past weeks. As marshal drums match the punches and kicks of the lyrics, guitars whirr in the background characterizing a world out of sync with itself as Ryskalczyk intones
I know what it feels like to have someone else feel entitled to my body
Not to have someone want me dead
I acknowledge this reality
The only people who have truly made me feel uncomfortable are middle aged white men
Fathers of my friends
Their fear and repressed sexuality
Standing as the most incendiary moment on a record full of them, the unfortunately universal tale of the abuse of male power and the venomous morality engendered in the sexual politics of American males is stomach-churning in its honesty. This emphatic outcry culminates in Ryskalczyk calling out an anthropomorphic America, demanding that this country “Stop letting your sons rape your daughters.” Starker and braver sentiments have yet to be heard on record this year and this track alone makes this a must-listen.
Of course, Ryskalczyk’s lyrics, while affecting in their own right, are elevated further by the musicality of a band at its prime. Moments of quiet confession dissolve into pummeling fuzz as each member seems to understand the subtleties their group’s abilities, never too proud to let each other shine and never too humble to be unimpressive at nearly all times. Guitar solos never burn too bright but rather offer a new melodic element to the sonic tapestry of these songs, again demonstrating this band’s command of dynamics and synchronicity. Stylistically these songs toe the line between recent ragged Midwestern favorites Melkbelly, without the deep dissonance and horror-flick violence of their sonics, and the timeless pop-confessionals of The Cranberries (yep, I said it; now deal with it. I called them “timeless” too). Bethlehem Steel, in all of their musical alchemy, manage to craft something that is might engage the past, but never at the expense of sounding dated or retro.
The notion of a young band with such skill, scope, and deep empathy is never something to be overlooked, but the cultural context only further adds to the depth. Bethlehem Steel operate in a micro-genre, that not unlike the much-maligned chill-wave, has been criticized often for its shortsightedness and regressiveness, however, with Party Naked Forever the world may finally be able to watch a genre come into its own with all the power, ferocity, and tunefulness of some of the the greats that have come before them.